The Story Behind VPP's Nature Explorers Program

Learning through nature

Some of my favorite childhood memories are of the hours and hours that my best friend and I spent playing in the woods behind my house in New Jersey. We’d play witches and mix concoctions of dirt, water, leaves, berries and twigs. We’d hide in the trees, make forts, and play joyfully outside for hours. In the fall we loved to jump in the huge piles of leaves that were raked, and in the winter we explored in the snow.

I wish that my own children could have had these experiences, and I think of all the fun they would have had growing up with a backyard like I did. It’s been more than 25 years since I’ve been back to that house and I’ve often wondered if it’s really as big as it lives in my mind. All I know is that as a child, it felt like those woods went on forever!

Experiencing the great outdoors

This feeling of awe and appreciation in nature is what I hope to give to the children in our Explorers classes. For a brief period each week we get to enjoy simply being in nature. We sing songs under the trees, explore trails and creeks, skip rocks, build dams, smell flowers, and immerse ourselves in nature. While we haven’t experienced snow, on a few occasions we have experienced rain, lots and lots of rain! Few things bring as much joy to a young child as jumping in an overflowing puddle, or catching water in their hands from a crashing waterfall, and I feel quite privileged to share these experiences with them.

Like many great things at a parent cooperative school, our Explorers class started at the suggestion of a parent. For years we had been asked to start a toddler program, but our schedule just didn’t lend itself to doing that on site. This time a parent suggested holding a toddler program off site, and Little Explorers was born.

Our first trial session had just three students. Then word spread… By the end of the year, we had expanded to three classes of Little Explorers and Family Explorers and an amazing 50 students ranging from walking toddlers all the way to seven year olds. 

The most wonderful part of Explorers is the impact it has had outside of our classes. Each week parents tell me they go back to the places we explore and visit again with their family and friends. We’ve all seen the research of what happens when we spend time in nature; improved sense of well-being, higher energy levels, better sleep, less stress, and improved cognitive function are just a few of the many benefits.

But even more importantly, we’re passing on a love and appreciation for nature. If we want our children to take care of the earth, we must first teach them to enjoy it. My hope is that the Explorers program will do just that.

About the author: Sarah Bradford is the Director at Valley Parent Preschool.  She received her BA in Leadership and Organizational Studies from St. Mary's College and her Early Childhood Education from CSUB.  Sarah was voted “most likely to be a teacher” when she was in middle school, and her commitment to working with young children and their families has continued to this day.